New SCSU women's coach getting reacclimated to college game after three seasons with pros overseas
Brian Idalski is making some adjustments as he gets back to college hockey after coaching the 2022 Chinese Olympic team and 3 seasons coaching a pro team in China.
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Brian Idalski coached college women's hockey for 16 seasons before the University of North Dakota cut its team after the 2016-17 season. He spent the last three seasons coaching a pro women's team in China that played in the top Russian league.
Since being introduced as the new St. Cloud State women's coach, Idalski has been busy with moving, getting to know his players, hiring an assistant coach and getting back on the recruiting trail. He admits that some things have changed since he last worked in the college game and for him as a coach.
"(Earlier) in my career, I would have come in and set the standard that this is what it looks like and I probably would have burned it to the ground and started over completely," Idalski said on Wednesday during WCHA Media Day. "A little older, pro hockey helped teach me that this is a process of engaging the players. They've got to take ownership of what this looks like.
"They have to have a say. They have to be the ones who go out and execute it and do it. We're still very much in the process of creating that and having those conversations. It's going to take a little time, but I think that's the best way for ownership and for them. They have to determine what are their non-negotiables are and not just me telling them."
Idalski was introduced as the head coach on June 2 and has gotten a chance to get back out on the recruiting trail. He is working on re-establishing himself in the different circles of people and players.
"Quite honestly, I've had to re-calibrate a little bit," Idalski said. "Being at the international level and the Olympics — the caliber of players, technique, style and overall talent — it's the best of the best.
"Getting back out and getting back in those (amateur) circles, watching games and understanding the player pool has been really important for me. I'm starting to feel really comfortable with that. But at the same point, we're going to be very picky. I'm very picky. It's a privilege to play here and it's an honor to play here. It's not just anybody off the street. I'm not going to bring people in just to bring people in. It has to be the right kid.
"You prefer four-year commitments. But there's a lot of things I'm still digesting with the transfer portal and how that may play into what we're trying to do."
New faces, another Olympian added
The Huskies have added three transfers since the end of last season in forwards Bailey Burton (Providence) and Avery Meyer (New Hampshire) and goalie Jojo Chobak (Minnesota Duluth).
There are also three players who played in the 2022 Olympics and IIHF Women's World Championships on the roster in forwards Jenniinna Nylund (Finland) and Klara Hymlarova (Czechia) and defenseman Laura Zimmerman (Switzerland). Hymlarova helped Czechia win the bronze medal in the World Championships and Nylund helped Finland win the bronze medal at the Olympics. Zimmerman, a 19-year-old freshman, helped Switzerland reach the semifinals of the World Championships.
"Anytime you are medalling at international events, you understand what it looks like to play at a high level," Idalski said. "You understand work ethic, compete, the effort and the sacrifice that goes into winning a medal at that level.
"Those are things that, not only on ice, but off ice, are going to be very important for us."
Goalie, many top scorers return
The Huskies also have junior Sanni Ahola back in goal. Ahola, who was named to the All-WCHA Rookie Team in 2020-21, is 8-18-1 with a 3.51 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 33 career college games.
And 93% of the team's scoring from last season is returning, led by the top line of senior forward Taylor Lind (8 goals, 25 points), junior Emma Gentry (team-leading 15 goals, 23 points) and Nylund (15 points in 18 games).
There are five players who are in their fifth year of eligibility because the NCAA gave another year to players who played during the pandemic season of 2020-21. For those five players, Idalski will be the third head coach that they have played for at SCSU.
"Once we found out about Brian being named the head coach, we were all super excited," said Taytum Geier, a graduate student defenseman. "We knew it was going to be different ... I've had three head coaches now, so I kind of know what it's like having a new head coach.
"So far, the biggest thing is the pace of practice," Geier said of notable differences she has noticed with Idalski in charge. "Getting out on the ice, it looks a little different than it did in previous years. But everyone enjoys that. We love that. We love being pushed and I think it's been great so far."
Idalski also sounds pleased with what he has seen so far in the eight hours a week the coaching staff is allowed to work with the players in the preseason.
"I think overall, they've given me an honest run with work ethic and compete and some of the things we want to emphasize — that's encouraging," Idalski said. "In any transition, there's some difficulties. You're really a salesman trying to sell what you're doing and why you're doing it for the betterment of the club and the individuals. That's a process, for sure.
"Normally when you're coming into a season, you have a handful of newcomers having a group of older people helping the coaching staff to encourage those values, morals, work ethic and structure. Right now, that's foreign to everybody, even my coaching staff. A lot of work to do, but enjoying the journey so far and hungry to get into some game action so we can do some more teaching."
In order to work toward their first winning season since going 15-14-8 overall and finishing third in the WCHA in 2009-10, some changes are needed. Geier said that some of the preseason conversations that the team has had have had a different twist.
"I think one of the biggest changes right now is just starting those culture conversations right off the bat," Geier said. "I think in previous years, it kind of took a little bit and we dug into it a little deeper into the season. But one of the positives is we've taken it head on.
"Just getting it started early is great for us to get it established."
Idalski said that there is a characteristic that has been a theme in any team he is coached.
"I think my teams have always prided themselves on — and we embrace — is compete ," he said. "Quite honestly, if you're a recruit, it's the reason why you play in the WCHA. You want to be among the best of the best. You want to be pushed to be better, not only as a player, but as a person. You want to play at the pinnacle of what hockey is in college and, hopefully, beyond."
Late staff addition
While dealing with a new set of players has been a challenge, Idalski has also been dealing with a new coaching staff. When he was hired, Jinellie Siergiej and Molly Engstrom were the assistant coaches. Engstrom left the program when she was hired to be the head coach for the University of Maine on Aug. 16 .
Within a week of Engstrom leaving, Idalski hired former Finnish Olympian and University of Minnesota defenseman Mira Jalosuo to replace Engstrom. Siergiej is beginning her ninth season with the Huskies.
"Coming in, it was important to me to not just willy nilly start to do things," he said. "I tried to keep Jinelle's role similar to what she has been doing and then just evaluate it as we go.
"I'm super excited to bring in Mira," Idalski said of Jalosuo. "Mira's a complete rock star. From Day 1, she just stepped in seamlessly and like she had been here and on staff with me for years. That was a very fortunate hire in a very short amount of time.
"The two of them, it's been good and it's only going to get better as we get more comfortable and work as a cohesive group."
The Huskies have an exhibition game against Durham West Jr. Lightning at 3 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. SCSU opens the regular season with a home game against RPI at 6 p.m. Sept. 30. The Huskies open WCHA play at 5 p.m. Oct. 7 at Ohio State, the defending national champion.